Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Staff Post: Jonathan Pinckney on Development in Light of "Occupy Wall Street"

ISP Staff member Jonathan Pinckney reflects on a lecture last week as part of the ISP Lecture Series, brought to us by Professor John Itty, of the Vichara Collective based in Mavelikara, Kerala. Professor Itty spoke on the necessity of re-thinking the traditional development model, something especially relevant in light of the Occupy Wall Street movement taking part across the states and the west at large.
Professor John Itty addresses ISP and BACAS students on development at the first lecture in the ISP Lecture Series.
Today in the USA economists worry about the possibility of a “double dip recession,” protesters occupy Wall Street – and the bankers and corporate executives who led the global economy to the brink of ruin three years ago are buying new mansions and bigger yachts as their companies record record profits.  Meanwhile today in India the government continues to defend why it considers 26 rupees a day (about 50 cents) an acceptable standard of living for India’s poor – and the increasing number of South Asian billionaires build more and more elaborate mansions with the money which record “economic growth” has provided them. What’s wrong with this picture?  Where did we go wrong when, contrary to the “rags to riches” American ideal, the rich only grow richer and the poor grow poorer? 
 To speak about some of these questions for the first lecture in our “ISP Lecture Series” we invited Dr. John Itty, an Indian economist and representative of the Vichara collective to speak about “development” and how it might be more equitably re-envisioned.  Traditionally development has been viewed in terms of simple dollars and cents, or, on the national scale, in terms of GDP (Gross Domestic Product), a measure of the total amount of goods and services produced in a country in a year.  GDP is the benchmark for how well a country’s “development” is progressing.  Countries with high GDPs (The USA, UK, France, Japan, etc…) are considered “developed” and countries with low GDPs (African nations, some Asian nations, etc…) are considered “undeveloped” or “underdeveloped” or, in more politically correct language, “developing.”

The problem with this approach is that it considers the ultimate good in people’s lives to be purely material, purely based on things that one can buy and sell.  It doesn’t take into account any number of things which can define whether an increase in GDP actually translates to an increase in people’s quality of life.  A rise or fall in GDP says nothing about environmental degradation, about education, or about the strength of the family.  Indeed, because of the wider impacts of industrialization and urbanization necessary to increase GDP a rise in GDP may mean that these much more real measures of quality of life are damaged.  And of course the GDP measurement says nothing about who gets the lion’s share of those goods and services, usually the top 1 to 10 per cent of people on the socio-economic ladder.   And because these top 1 to 10 per cent tend to own the companies which sell most of those goods and services, a rise in GDP means a rise in their wealth.
ISP and BACAS students and friends of ISP listen as Professor Itty speaks on how the current model of GDP-based development is unsustainable.
This focus on GDP by the world’s economic “experts” indicates a deeper global cultural trend: across the globe people have been brainwashed into believing in frantic consumption as gospel truth.  Corporate executives and advertising agencies make millions of dollars convincing us, whether we’re in Coimbatore, India or Columbus, Ohio, that what we have is never good enough – that our happiness depends on having a flat-screen TV or an SUV or a house that’s just a little bit bigger than our neighbors’.  But the frank reality is that this is a fantastic con job played on the poor and the middle class in order to line the pockets of the world’s politicians and corporate executives.   A new car or a new house or a new gadget will not make you happier, will not make your society stronger, will not create “economic development.”  And neither will new cars, new houses, or new gadgets in and of themselves make life better for the world’s 1,345 million poor people people who live on less than $1.25 a day, 300 million of them in India.  The more we buy into this myth the more we centralize wealth and power in the hands of the super-wealthy and the more we alienate and dis-empower the world’s poor and middle classes. 

So what to do with this backward way of looking at “development?”  Ultimately, Dr. Itty said to us, the responsibility lies with each of us as consumers, us as the drivers of this economic tornado.  We must detach ourselves from this endless race for more, more, more and instead seek the things that truly lead to a “life abundant.”  We must affirm in our own lives, in our communities, in our churches, that life is more than money, that the underclass is more important than the bottom line.  We must say by the things we buy, the way we live, and the people we vote for that we don’t believe in the corporate worldview that money and possessions equal happiness. As Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount (paraphrasing): “Do not build up for yourselves a high GDP on earth, where economic crises destroy and insider traders break in and steal, but build up for yourselves treasures in heaven.” That’s a message that all of us should listen to; on Wall Street, Washington DC, or the Western Ghats here in southern India; and if we let it sink in its impact on our lives will be revolutionary.

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